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'Mind if I join you?'
'Please do. I'm finished here, anyway.' The warmly polite words had already been spoken before Mia looked up, but the friendly smile curving her lips froze in place as she instantly recognised the man standing beside her booth in the crowded coffee shop.
How could she not recognise Ethan Black?
Big. Dark. Forceful. Arrogant. Magnetically attractive. Still
Mia drew in a deep breath, chin tilting in challenge as she took in everything about him. It had been five years since she last saw Ethan, and his hair was still as dark as night, although it was styled much shorter than it used to be. Expertly so. His face was just as male-model handsome: wide, intelligent brow, penetrating grey eyes, sculptured cheekbones either side of a long straight nose, and a wickedly sinful mouth above a square and determined jaw. Although his mouth was unsmiling at the moment.
The same, and yet not the same.
Ethan would be thirty-one now, to Mia's twenty-five, and that maturity showed in the cynical depths of his eyes that at the moment had all the colour and warmth of a bleak winter sky. His cheeks were thinner too, more hollow, and there were lines beside his eyes and mouth that hadn't been there before either.
He was dressed in a blackobviously expensively tailored designer-label suit, with a black cashmere overcoat that reached mid-calf and drew attention to the handmade Italian shoes in soft black leather.
And he was nearly a foot taller than Mia's own five feet four inchesshe was getting a crick in her neck just from looking up at him!
'Ethan.' She nodded tersely, knowing her initial reaction would have been too obvious for her to even attempt to act as if she hadn't recognised him.
Or realised that his presence at this particular coffee shopthe coffee shop Mia both owned and rancouldn't simply be a coincidence
There was, Mia realised warily, a hardness about Ethan as he looked down at heran unsmiling, haughty demeanour totally in keeping with those other changes she had noted in his appearance. A powerful arrogance that so reminded Mia of the man Ethan worked for. Mia's father.
She raised her brows. 'You're supposed to buy the coffee and a cookie from the counter before you sit down.'
He shrugged, unconcerned. 'And if I don't want coffee or a cookie?'
Mia smiled ruefully. 'Then you obviously made a mistake coming into an establishment called Coffee and Cookies!'
'There was no mistake, Mia.'
'Of course not,' she accepted smoothly. 'The omnipotent Ethan Black doesn't make mistakes.'
Ethan eyed her coldly as he ignored the jibe. 'Do you think we could go somewhere more private and talk?' He looked pointedly around the room, crowded with people laughing and chatting as they enjoyed their hot drinks and biscuits in the warmth of the cosy coffee shop.
''Fraid not.' Mia's light answer was completely bereft of apology as she closed the magazine she had been flicking through before his arrival. 'My afternoon break is over and, as you can see, we're a little busy right now.'
He didn't move, effectively blocking her in the booth. 'And I'm sure that as the owner you can take a break whenever you want to.'
'Then obviously I don't want to.' Mia wasn't in the least surprised that Ethan knew she owned the coffee shop; if he knew where to find her at four-thirty on a Thursday afternoon, then he would also have made a point of knowing she owned the coffee shop in which she could be found!
Ethan shrugged. 'Then I'll just sit here and wait until you finish work for the day.'
'Not without buying coffee and a cookie, you won't.'
'Then I'll do that,' he retorted. 'Or alternatively we can meet up somewhere once you've closed up for the day?'
Once upon a timein another life!Mia would have been delighted at the idea of meeting up with Ethan. Any time. Any place.
Once upon a time
It sounded like the beginning of a fairytale. Probably because that was what her infatuation with Ethan had always beennothing more than a complete flight of fantasy on Mia's part!
She sighed. 'How did you find me, Ethan?'
He looked at her from between narrowed lids. 'When your father has failed to do so in five years of searching?' he taunted.
Her mouth thinned. 'If that's how long he's looked, yes.'
Ethan grimaced. 'We really should go somewhere more private to discuss this, Mia.' 'I said no.'
Irritation darkened his brow. 'We are going to talk, Mia.'
'Whether I like it or not?'
That was what Mia had thought! 'Did my father send you?'
Ethan gave a hard smile. 'No one "sends" me anywhere, Mia.'
'Meaning you volunteered to come and talk to me, or that my father doesn't even know you're here?' She eyed him sceptically.
'Both.' He was obviously not comfortable with the latter.
Mia eyed him warily. 'If my father didn't send you, then what possible reason could you have for being here, Ethan?'
'I've already told youbecause I want to talk to you,' he muttered tersely.
'And if I don't want to talk to you?'
'You appear to be doing so, whether you want to or not!'
Yes, she did. And Mia had no intention of continuing to do so. 'I'm busy, Ethan.' She stood up.
Ethan gave a glance around the cafe. It was designed to be as warm and cosy as someone's sitting room, with comfortable armchairs grouped around low tables, and prints on the walls interspersed with plants trailing down from hooks fixed in the ceiling. The people sitting at those tables ranged in age from a mother and her young childthe latter obviously enjoying a hot chocolate with her cookieseveral students from the university close by, who appeared to be working while they drank their coffee, to half a dozen or so older ladies, obviously meeting up for a chat in the late afternoon. Business, he noted abstractedly, was obviously thriving.
He turned back to look at the unmoving, grim-faced woman standing in the booth beside him. Mia had been twenty when Ethan had last seen her, with a prettily glowing face dominated by laughing green eyes, a nicely rounded body, and long straight hair the colour of ripe corn.
That softness was gone now. Her face was all hollows and angles, her body slim and toneda fact only emphasised by the close-fitting black blouse and skin-tight black jeans. Her hairthat long and gloriously golden mane that had reached almost to her waist, and which Ethan clearly remembered falling softly, tantalisingly, across his bare fleshwas gone too. Although, he allowed grudgingly, the shorter, wispily feathered style certainly complemented the stark beauty of her face and emphasised the deep emerald colour of her eyes.
He gave a disbelieving shake of his head at the changes he saw in her. 'What happened to you, Mia?'
Her eyes narrowed. 'In what way?'
'In every way!' He scowled darkly. 'You're so changed in appearance that'
'My own father wouldn't recognise me ?' she finished dryly.
Ethan stilled. 'I gather that was the point of the exercise?'
Ethan's gaze raked over her critically. 'William might not recognise you, but I do. With or without your clothes!' he added.
Mia's breath left her in a loud hiss. 'That was uncalledfor!'
He gave a hard smile. 'I take it you didn't like my reference to the fact that we've been naked together?'
'I want you to leave, Ethan.' Her hands were clenched, her eyes glittering in warning. 'Now!'
He looked down at her speculatively. 'I never would have imagined you even working in a coffee shop, let alone owning one.'
'And why is that?' Mia bristled. 'Did you imagine that the daughter of Kay Burton would be too frightened of breaking a nail if she actually worked?'
'I never once confused you with your mother, Mia,' he drawled softly.
A beautiful and accomplished hostess. A social butterfly. Until the accident nine years ago that had not only robbed Kay of her beauty but the use of her legs.
Mia's gaze fixed on Ethan. 'If you don't leave voluntarily in the next thirty seconds I'm going to call the police and have you forcibly removed!'
He looked at her in mock horror. 'On what grounds?'
'How about making a public nuisance of yourself? And I'm sure if I were to call the newspapers at least one of them would just love to come along and take pictures of Ethan Black being ejected from a coffee shop,' she taunted.
His mouth tightened and his eyes drew into icy slits of grey. 'Are you threatening me?' 'Does it sound as if I am?'
'Then I probably am,' Mia confirmed.
'You do realise that even if I agree to leave now I'll only come back later?'
Oh, yes. Mia realised that Having finally succeeded in finding her, she very much doubted that Ethan was now going to just walk away without saying exactly what he had come here to say.
It had been five years, for goodness' sake. Five years during whichas Ethan had just pointed out so cuttinglyMia had changed almost beyond recognition. And those changes weren't just physical
Five years ago she had been totally infatuatedin love with Ethan. An interest he had brieflyvery brieflyseemed to reciprocate. That mutual interest had come to an abrupt end when Mia's mother died suddenly and Mia became aware of the fragility upon which her world had been built. A world she had thought so bright with possibilities suddenly made bereft and uncertain.
'Please yourself,' she dismissed dryly.
'I usually do.'
'Why am I not surprised?' Mia gave his own changed appearance another scathing glance. 'Working for my father all these years has not only resulted in you looking and dressing like him, but also talking like he does tooas if you're God Almighty!'
Ethan snorted his impatience. 'Insult me all you wish, Mia, but let's leave your father out of it.'
'Fine with me. You have ten seconds of the thirty left, Ethan.' Her expression remained unrelenting.
His mouth thinned, and he looked as if he would like to add more before nodding abruptly. 'As I said, I'll be back.' It was more of a warning than a promise.
A warning Mia had no intention of heeding. 'Obviously I'm not going to say it was good seeing you again.'
'I remember a time when you couldn't wait to see me.' His hard eyes swept over her with slow deliberation. 'All of me.'
The colour rose in Mia's cheeks as she was reminded of just how well she had once known this man. 'Just leave, will you, Ethan?'
He gave a mocking inclination of his head. 'For the moment.'
Mia watched in frustration as Ethan turned on one leather-shod heel and walked confidently over to the door, turning briefly so his glittering silver gaze met Mia's across the room once more in challenge, before he stepped outside and closed the door quietly behind him.
At which point all of Mia's outward bravado left her like the air from a deflating balloon and she began to hyperventilate. She had to rest her hands supportively on the table-top as her knees began to shake.
'Are you feeling all right, Mia?' Dee, the nineteen-year-old Mia employed to help out with the serving, gave her a concerned glance as she cleared the neighbouring booth.
Was Mia feeling all right? No, came back the definitive answer. The last thing Mia was feeling was all right!
It had been five long years, damn it! And Ethan had just walked back into her life as if he had never left it. Worsethat last threat confirmed that he had no intention of leaving it again until he had said what he wanted to say to her.
'I think I need to go outside for some air.' She gave
Dee a wobbly smile. 'Can you and Matt manage here for a while longer?'
'No problem,' Dee assured her readily.
Mia stood up to move quickly through the coffee shop and out to the kitchen, grabbing up her short leather jacket and hurrying out through the back door to breathe in large gulps of the fresh September air before moving away from the coffee shop as if rabid dogs were at her heels. Or Ethan Black.
The man Mia had fantasised about for years until he had finally asked her out and every one of those fantasies had become reality.
The man she had once believed herself to be deeply in love with.
The same man Mia had just discovered was still capable of making her aware of every disturbing thing about him just by being in the same room with her!